When the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed last Tuesday that Iran had broken the seals on its nuclear research facility at Natanz, many people reacted as if the very next step was the testing of an Iranian nuclear weapon.
In the ensuing media panic, we were repeatedly reminded that Iran’s radical new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, declared just months ago that Israel should be “wiped off the map.” How could such a lethally dangerous regime be allowed to proceed with its nuclear plans?
But talk is cheap and not to be confused with actions or even intentions. Ahmadinejad was quoting directly from the founder of Iran’s Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini. But neither during Khomeini’s life nor in the 16 years since his death has Iran made any effort to wipe Israel off the map, because to do so could mean the virtual extermination of the Iranian people.
Israel has held a monopoly on nuclear weapons in the Middle East since shortly after Ahmadinejad was born and now possesses enough of them to strike every Iranian and every Arab city of more than 100,000 people simultaneously.
Ahmadinejad’s comment was as foolish, but also ultimately as meaningless, as Ronald Reagan’s famous remark into a microphone that he didn’t know was open: “My fellow Americans, I am pleased to tell you today that I have signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.”
Nobody doubted that Reagan wanted the “evil empire” to be wiped from the face of the earth, but nobody seriously believed he intended to attack it. Russia had nuclear weapons too, and the U.S. would have been destroyed by its retaliation.
Ahmadinejad was not joking about wanting Israel to vanish, but he was expressing a wish, not an intention, because Iran has been thoroughly deterred for all of his adult life by the knowledge of those hundreds of Israeli nuclear warheads.
And Iran would still be deterred if it had a few nuclear weapons of its own, just as Reagan was deterred from striking the Soviet Union even though the United States had thousands of the things.
So why would Iran want nuclear weapons at all? Mostly national pride, plus a desire to keep up with the neighbours.
For Iran, nuclear weapons fall into the class of “nice to have” rather than life-or-death necessity. Israel cannot invade it, and even the United States would be reluctant to do so: It is a very big, mountainous and nationalistic country.
So, the Iranians have chipped away at the task of building the scientific and technological basis for a nuclear-weapons program in a desultory way for several decades, without ever getting really serious about it.
That is still the pattern. When the IAEA demanded that Iran explain certain irregularities in its nuclear power research program three years ago, the regime did not respond like North Korea, which immediately abrogated its membership in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and went all out to build nuclear weapons as soon as possible.
Instead, Iran voluntarily allowed the IAEA to put seals on its nuclear research facilities.
Now it has removed those seals and plans to resume its research on nuclear power. This will also enhance its capacity to work on nuclear weapons eventually, but that can’t be helped.
The current American campaign to impose United Nations sanctions on Iran is doomed to fail, because it is not breaking the law.
As a signatory of the NPT, it is fully entitled to develop nuclear power for peaceful purposes, including the technology for enriching uranium, even though that also takes it much of the way to a nuclear-weapons capability. In any case, it is practically unimaginable that all the veto-holding powers on the UN Security Council would agree to impose sanctions on a major oil-producer on the mere suspicion that it ultimately intends to break the law.
And there is no need for such a dramatic confrontation. Iran has never been in a great rush to get nuclear weapons.
Even if the CIA is unduly optimistic in assuming that Tehran is still 10 years away from a bomb, there is still plenty of time and room for patient negotiation. And no need for the current histrionics.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.